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No single model, apart from Ford Model T, changed auto history as much as the Beetle. With that quirky vehicle, Volkswagen paved the way for the import invasion that occurred in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Conceived as part of Adolf Hitler's plan for a Nazi-led future, Volkswagen's history began prior the German dictator's rise to power. Late in 1930, a new company was established: Dr.-Ing. h.c. Ferdinand Porsche GmbH. Ferdinand Porsche himself saw the creation of small cars as a challenge. Project 12 came about early; eventually evolving into the Beetle.
By 1933, Hitler announced his desire to create Autobahnen (high-speed highways), along with a "people's car" for ordinary workers. Volkswagen translates directly as "people's car."
Developers decided on a rear-mounted engine that had to be lightweight, so as not to impair safe weight distribution. Air-cooling meant no radiator would be needed; with no worry about coolant freezing. A horizontally-opposed cylinder configuration would mate neatly with the rear transaxle. Volkswagens would be built on a platform-type chassis with an integral floorpan, using front torsion bars and a swing-type rear axle.
In addition, Volkswagens should have space for five occupants, be able to reach 100 kph (62 mph), get 33 mpg, and require minimal repair and maintenance. First cost estimates were too expensive; but Porsche got a green light anyway. So he proceeded with an evolution of Zundapp/NSU prototypes that he'd developed, creating VW Series 3. Late in 1936, final prototypes were ready.
Porsche visited the U.S. twice during this period, meeting with Henry Ford and other auto-industry leaders. Work on a factory at Wolfsburg began in mid-1938. Initially, the car was called KdF-Wagen (Kraft durch Freude, or "Strength Through Joy"). Volkswagen was the nickname that had arisen.
Production was halted by war, but resumed early in 1946 as the plant wound up in the British-occupied sector of Germany. Precisely two examples reached the U.S. in 1949, but then sales began to rise-and then zoom upward. Camaraderie developed among owners; who waved and tooted their horns at other Beetles.
Convertibles were added in 1949, built by the Karmann coachbuilding firm. Synchronized gears (except First) replaced the initial "crash box" in 1952. The original split back window was replaced by a single oval pane in 1953, and made rectangular for 1958. Engine size grew several times.
Early in 1972, Volkswagen set a production record for a single model, surpassing Ford's Model T. Sedans were exported to the U.S. until 1977; convertibles, into 1979. Beetle production stopped in Germany, but continued in Mexico and elsewhere.
Back in 1949, the boxy Transporter (Microbus) began production, using regular Beetle mechanical components. In 1960s, Microbuses evolved into Camper buses; popular with counterculture "hippies" who liked their economy, practicality, nonconformist image.
In 1956 a stylish 2+2 coupe debuted, designed by Karmann-Ghia. An open Cabriolet followed in 1958. Type 3 (1500) Volkswagens were completely different sedans with squarish bodies, sold in Europe in 1961. Fastback and squareback sedans were made. By 1968, a rudimentary automatic transmission was available. A year later, Type 411 adopted unibody construction.
In 1969, Volkswagen took over the NSU company, having obtained Audi earlier. Then came one of the most curious Volkswagen products. The open-air, Jeep-like Type 181 (soon dubbed "The Thing") arrived in the U.S. in 1973. A year later, the first front-engine Dashers debuted, followed by the initial Rabbits. Also introduced as a Giugiaro-designed Scirocco sport coupe. By 1978, Rabbits were being made in Pennsylvania-but not for long.
Rabbits led to the Golf hatchback and Jetta notchback sedan in the 1980s, but the basic Rabbit configuration continued in convertible form, as the Cabriolet. Late in the 1980s, Volkswagen brought the Brazilian-built Fox to the U.S. market. Introduced for 1990 was the supercharged Corrado hatchback, billed as Volkswagen's "first full-blooded sports car." Corrados soon became a favorite of enthusiasts. A new Passat sedan and wagon also arrived in 1990, replacing the Quantum and destined for reworking four times, most recently for 2012.
In 1995, after the demise of the Rabbit-based Cabriolet, Volkswagen launched an open-top Cabrio. EuroVans began to reach dealerships in 1993, succeeding the previous Vanagon.
After exhibiting a modernized version of the Beetle at Detroit's auto show, enthusiastic responses induced Volkswagen to produce the New Beetle as a 1998 model. Beetle convertibles began to reach dealerships late in 2002. Redesigning for 2012 reverted to a profile closer to the original Beetle.
Most manufacturers have failures, and Volkswagen's was the Phaeton-a high-end sedan launched to great fanfare in 2004. Likely customers didn't seem to care much. Volkswagen went bigger more successfully with the CC sedan of 2009. Golf and Jetta models remain a fixture of the Volkswagen lineup, including high-performance GTI editions with a Direct Shift Gearbox. Recent additions include the Eos retractable hardtop of 2007, the Touareg SUV introduced for 2003, and a Tiguan crossover wagon launched in 2009.